The Three-Minute, Star-Studded, Fix-It-by-the-Fireside Ski Lesson

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1996

The Three-Minute, Star-Studded, Fix-It-by-the-Fireside Ski Lesson

A midwinter review of the essentials of the game
By Michel Beaudry

Go ahead, says Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe. Listen to what those skis are sayin'.

"You've got to recapture the jungle beast," says Tommy Moe, sounding more like celebrity wildlife commentator Jack Hanna than one of the world's foremost experts on alpine skiing. "Think cheetah. Reconnect yourself with your inner grace and power."

The 25-year-old Moe, who won the gold medal in the downhill at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and who indeed manages to look big-cat-like while rounding corners at 90 mph, sounds less touchy-feely when it comes to actual nuts and bolts. The most important technique, he says, is the turn, and the only good turn is a well-carved one. The reason is simple: "There's so much more energy stored in a well-carved ski than a skidding one," he says. "It's like riding on a slippery bar of soap--your skis just want to jump out from under you." Herewith Moe's recipe for adding a veritable veldt full of power and grace to your skiing.

1. Finding Your Edges
First, try this exercise: On a wide, gentle slope with a long runout, point your skis down the fall line while maintaining a comfortable, athletic stance--hips squarely over boots, upper body relaxed, and feet spread shoulder-width apart. "As you pick up speed," says Moe, "slowly roll your ankles and knees to one side to put the skis on edge. Don't try to force anything--just let it happen." The broad, shallow turn that you make reflects the natural radius of your skis. That's the turn your skis will make practically on their own if you let them. "The arc should be clean, with no skidding at all," says Moe. "You should almost feel like you're on in-line skates."

Now, as you practice these turns, think outside ski. "It's the most crucial thing to remember," says Moe, "and for a lot of people, it's the biggest problem in making the transition to higher-speed carved turns. You've got to trust yourself to put all your weight on the outside ski." To help you do that, he advises, "At the beginning of the turn, lean on the ball of your outside foot--the sweet spot--and feel your ankle bend as you roll that ski onto its edge and steer it into the fall line. Setting an edge early in the turn--that's what makes the skis arc."

2. Downward, Ho!
Your skis are turning, but where are you? "As your tips begin to cross the fall line," says Moe, "it's important that your upper body be in the lead." In other words, while your skis are drawing arcs back and forth in the snow, your head should be like the stocking-capped prow of a Viking ship, vectoring straight down the mountain. "I focus on looking toward my next turn as well as pushing my inside, or uphill, hand forward as the turn progresses," says Moe. "Remember, you're trying to bend the ski around the turn, not skid it flat." At the crux of the turn, lift your inside ski off the snow and try keeping it up for the duration. You'll quickly learn how your upper body should be positioned.

3. The Crucial Link
Since one turn is never enough to get you down the hill, it pays to be ready for the next. This final aspect of the turn--the transfer of weight from one working ski to the other--has undergone a transformation in the racing world. Thanks to new, more deeply sidecut skis, which act something like uncoiling springs when you turn, the best skiers no longer pause for a microsecond to unweight their skis before lugging them across the fall line and into their new position. Rather, says Moe, you should take advantage of your skis' "pop" and, in a single, explosive lateral move, throw your weight over to the other ski, eschewing the pause. "Of course, you have to be ready for the burst of energy from your skis," Moe warns. "You have to make sure your hips are well over your boots, so you can catch yourself on the other side of the fall line and set the edge. And doing that well," says Moe, explaining what separates an Olympian from the rest of us, "takes huge amounts of strength. Don't be anal. Pick up the speed."

Dance! Dance! Dance! Olympic champ Donna Weinbrecht's school for the aspiring bumpster.

"Imagine that you've got high-powered magnets strapped to the bases of your skis," says bumps diva Donna Weinbrecht. "And they're being tugged on from deep beneath the snow. It's almost impossible to pull your skis off the snow."

A far-out concept perhaps, but that, says the 30-year-old Weinbrecht, is what you should think about when skiing moguls: keeping in constant contact with the snow so that you absorb the bumps rather than letting them buck you off. An implacable force on the World Cup circuit and Olympic gold medalist in mogul skiing at Albertville in 1992, the former mall girl and figure skater from Jersey has come to define the style of modern mogul skiing--powerful, precise, ultra-smooth. "People get all locked up when they ski moguls," she says, making the discipline sound easy. "They panic and stiffen up when they should be supple." A good rule of thumb: Don't bother venturing into the bumps if you haven't mastered the groomed runs. Beyond that, says Weinbrecht, "Loosen up. The bumps are a dance."

1. The Absorption Factor
Skiing the bumps is a lot like doing deep squats in the gym, says Weinbrecht. Practice this motion on a series of speed bumps or a couple of isolated moguls on a relatively flat hill: In the first part of the turn, to absorb the bump, bend your knees just as you would in the down phase of the squat. Once you reach the top of the mogul, you should be fully compressed, with your feet directly under your hips, your upper body relaxed and somewhat erect. Finally, as you slide over the top and begin to change directions, push hard against the snow, the way you push off the floor during the squat's thrust phase.

The most important thing to remember is to use your legs as pistons, keeping your upper body facing squarely down the fall line. At first, advises Weinbrecht, don't even bother turning and go at a comfortable speed--concentrate most on being smooth. "As you crest," she says, "think about those magnets and how they help you drive your skis down the mogul's backside."

2. Planting Your Poles
Now that you've got your legs working overtime, start focusing on the poles. "Keep your hands forward," says Weinbrecht. "At all times! Practice what I call the attack position--body relaxed and facing down the hill, feet under the hips, and arms comfortably at your sides with the elbows bent at just over a 90-degree angle." As you approach the top of the bump, she says, swing your downhill pole out from the wrist and aim for a spot well out in front of your ski boot. "You want to just touch your pole at the top of the mogul," she says. "Then release it immediately by punching forward with your wrist and disengaging the shaft."

And don't hesitate. Remember, constant pressure on the snow is your new MO. "The moment you plant your pole," says Weinbrecht, "roll your hips forward and dive into the new turn." Don't even think of unweighting. "A lot of people are confused about that," she says. "But there's no active unweighting phase in mogul skiing. The bump does most of it for you."

3. Finding a Line
Good technique is a must, but strategy also plays a major role in bump skiing. Unlike a groomed slope, a mogul field offers a variety of routes down, not all of which are pleasant. "Before you push off down the run, take the time to plan out your line," says Weinbrecht. "Play a movie of it in your head. If you can actually see yourself doing it, you're more than halfway there." Once you've committed, stick to that line. "Don't look down at your tips," she says. "Look ahead at least two or three bumps down the hill and plan out turning sequences--one bump for your right turn, another for your left."

To control your speed, she says, make shorter turns: "Get those legs pumping. Drive those skis into the turn." It also helps to focus on realigning your stance. "When I want to reel it all back in, I concentrate on pulling my feet back under my hips," says Weinbrecht. "But if you really feel like you're starting to lose control, hey, there's always stopping."

To conquer the big drops, says off-piste master Scot Schmidt, you've got to take the upper hand

The most amazing thing about extreme skier Scot Schmidt is not that he's spent much of the past 15 years airborne on narrow, 50-degree chutes and the ice-encrusted lips of skidom's meanest couloirs, but that he's escaped from it all with barely a battered fibula. Widely regarded as the guru of the American extreme-skiing movement, Schmidt, 34, has laid claim to dozens of first descents and has appeared in a slew of ski films. Yet no matter how death-defyingly hairball his stunts, he always appears in control.

"To ski the really big stuff," he says, "you have to be so in tune with yourself and your abilities that you act without thinking." To prove that he's spent way too many oxygen-deprived, adrenaline-pumped hours on the steeps, he's now drawing inspiration from mountain goats. "Have you ever noticed how they have a sixth sense about snow conditions and mountain dangers?" he asks. "I figure they're just better plugged-in to their environment. I want to be just like them." Here, Schmidt's two-legged secrets for surviving the steeps.

1. Being the Boss
A sound technical base is the first step, says Schmidt. Most important for control is keeping your shoulders square and facing down the fall line. "The more upper body movement, the more chance of falling to the inside of the turn," he explains. A solid pole-plant is also key, as is being physically up to the task. "In deep snow or difficult conditions," says Schmidt, "you often have to lift your skis completely out of the snow in order to change direction. Unless you're in really good shape, jumping your skis all the way down a 2,000-foot couloir can get seriously tiring."

To prepare yourself, try this exercise: Stand with your skis perpendicular to the fall line on a short, steep slope, and jump and turn your skis 180 degrees so that they're facing in the opposite direction. Now do it the other way. The goal here is to keep your upper body as quiet as possible. Imagine a metronome as you try doing ten, 20, 30 of these jump turns on the spot. "It's the perfect drill to get you sharp for the steeps," says Schmidt. It also pays to work on independent leg action, the ability to move quickly from foot to foot. "In the steeps, you never ski like your two feet are one."

2. Milking the Sweet Spots
When skiing on steep terrain, it's imperative that you start your turn from a solid base, says Schmidt. That means you need to come down on the outside ski with a lot of authority. "Otherwise you're going to chatter or lose your edge. When the mountain starts throwing you around, that's when trouble starts."

Knowing how to read the slope can make the difference between a good run and a dismal one. "No matter how ugly the terrain, the sweet spots are always there," he says. Terrain breaks--bumps, knolls, ridges, and lips--can do all the turning work for you if you know how to use them. "Make your turn just as you crest of the sweet spot, where your skis are lightest," says Schmidt. "That way the turn becomes effortless."

3. The Importance of Om
Basics only go so far in the backcountry. "Skiing radical stuff is a state of mind," says Schmidt. "Fear is a negative emotion. It tightens up your muscles, restricts your breathing, and impedes your decision-making. In crucial situations, it can even paralyze you."

Learning how to relax, then, is fundamental to handling stressful situations. While meditative exercises like yoga, tai chi, and karate develop discipline and teach you to control your breathing and calm your mind, simply logging miles in the backcountry will often take you to the same place. "Leave the chairlift behind and start climbing. Pay your dues," says Schmidt. "And pay attention. Learn about the weather. Learn about the snow and its different characteristics." The point is to find your own limits--how steep you can go, how high you can jump, how exposed you can get. "There's no time for second guessing in the crux," says Schmidt. "You simply have to be instinctual." Goatlike.

Michel Beaudry is a mountaineer and writer living in British Columbia.

Filed To: Snow Sports

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